Rare earth metals are essential in virtually every kind of electronic device with a motor, from electric cars to wind turbines. Although they’re not actually rare in the Earth’s crust, they’re called rare for a reason: you have to mine a huge amount of raw material to sift out a small amount of the stuff and most rare earths are now mined and processed in China.
As a result, the world has come to fret about a possible future shortage of rare earths that would cripple the production of essential electronic devices.
Thanks to research from the University of Cambridge, maybe the world can begin to relax.
Scientists have been experimenting with a material called tetrataenite, an alloy of iron and nickel arranged in a crystalline lattice that has the same crucial magnetic properties that make rare earths useful.
The problem: in nature, tetrataenite is mainly found in meteorites.
Materials engineers have tried to synthesize tetrataenite—iron and nickel are far more plentiful and vastly cheaper than rare earths—but forming the material takes far too long to be practical at industrial scale.
At Cambridge, scientists recently discovered that the tetrataenite in meteorites also has phosphorus.
When the researchers added phosphorus to their synthesized tetrataenite, it took only a few seconds to form and produce the “cosmic magnet” that makes rare earths valuable.
“What was so astonishing was that no special treatment was needed: we just melted the alloy, poured it into a mold, and we had tetrataenite,” Cambridge materials engineer Lindsay Greer said in comments quoted by New Atlas.
“The previous view was that you couldn’t get tetrataenite unless you did something extreme, because otherwise, you’d have to wait millions of years for it to form. This result represents a total change in how we think about this material,” he added.
The team is now experimenting to see if their synthesized tetrataenite actually works in electronic devices.
TRENDPOST: If the synthesized material works as expected and can substitute for rare earths in devices, the cost of those devices could be cut and the geopolitical baggage toted by mined rare earths could be abandoned.
Perhaps most importantly, any prospect of a rare earth shortage would be eliminated, ensuring that a crucial component of our technologically-driven future won’t go missing.